A real-world Jurassic Park scenario. The puzzle of immigration, and the immigration of puzzles. The Mapplethorpe x Doolittle collaboration you never imagined. Finding solace in poetry. The inner lives of farm animals. All that—and more—in this week’s edition.
Sabrina Imbler | Defector | December 6, 2023 | 5,436 words
Ever imagine what it would be like if a long-lost species roamed Earth once again? Colossal, a well-funded company at the forefront of the de-extinction business, plans to make this a reality. On the surface, this sounds like an ecological dream, as well as a way for humans to do good and reverse some of the destruction we’ve caused on this planet. But what does de-extinction entail? In this fascinating read, Sabrina Imbler explains that a recreated dodo would not actually be a dodo, but a genetic hybrid of the dodo and its closest living relative (the Nicobar pigeon). What, then, would teach this lone dodo how to be a dodo? Or, in the case of the mammoth, which would be developed with the genetic help of the Asian elephant, how would the animal physically come into being? The uneasy answer: a surrogate elephant mother who would never be able to consent to carrying another species. (In the hope of an alternative, Colossal has a team focused on developing an artificial womb, which—depending on your perspective—might be even creepier.) There’s a lot more to ponder here, including the key question of who, ultimately, de-extinction is for. As Imbler asserts, it’s not for the animals, but for Colossal’s VCs and investors, who include Paris Hilton. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Always, always click on a link with a Sabrina Imbler byline. They write my favorite kind of science writing: curious, thoughtful, and accessible. This piece is no exception. —CLR
Natan Last | The New Yorker | December 18, 2023 | 4,675 words
So here’s something about me: I take crossword puzzles seriously. I’ve done them since I was old enough to hold a pen. I’ve written about them. (More than once!) I don’t say this to establish any nerd bona fides, but to make clear that I know from good crossword stories. And in a week when multiple national magazines ran longform pieces about puzzles, Natan Last’s New Yorker feature—which ran in print under the far better headline “Rearrangements”—became one of the best crossword stories I’ve ever read. A longtime crossword constructor and writer, Last is currently working on a book about you-know-what. Still, this piece contains multitudes in the best way possible. On one level, it’s a profile of Mangesh Ghogre, a man from Mumbai whose love of crosswords increased his English fluency and ultimately earned him a so-called Einstein visa to the U.S. On another, it uses Ghogre’s story to interrogate the cultural history and linguistic conventions of American-style crosswords—and on a third, it contends with the current movement trying to push those crosswords out of their Western rut and to be more expansive in both their clues and their fill. This conversation has been going on for years among constructors and editors, and the resulting sea change is evident everywhere from the iconic New York Times puzzle to outlets like The New Yorker and USA Today. Yet, Last wraps a human-interest story and a thorny bit of discourse into a bundle that’s accessible to non-solvers while also being sharp and nuanced enough to satisfy obsessives like me. If you didn’t have a clue, now you do. —PR
Lulu Miller and John Megahan | Orion | December 7, 2023 | 3,100 words
This utterly winning Q&A is about “the Noah’s ark you never heard about,” as Radiolab host Lulu Miller puts it in her introduction. Miller talks to John Megahan, an illustrator who spent years secretly drawing detailed pictures of animals engaging in queer behavior: “male giraffes necking (literally, that’s what scientists call the courtship behavior); dolphins engaging in blowhole sex; and rams and grizzlies and hedgehogs mounting one another in such intricate detail you can almost feel their fur or fangs or spines.” The illustrations, which eventually filled the pages of the seminal 1999 book Biological Exuberance, are entirely based on fact—they’re inspired by “well-documented cases of same-sex mating, parenting, courtship, and multivariate, rather than binary, expressions of sex (like intersexuality and sex-changing) in the animal world.” This interview about art as activism is a bright light at the end of a challenging year for so many of us. It is as funny as it is earnest, filled with laugh-out-loud anecdotes and eloquent articulations of important truths long sidelined by opponents of queer existence. “It definitely did not stay a day job,” Megahan says of his illustrations. “It became a work of love for me, in a sense. I became really committed to it. Once we got going and I saw the scope of the project and what it was all about, I basically wanted to pay respect to these animals.” —SD
Casey Cep | The New Yorker | December 4, 2023 | 5,978 words
Casey Cep profiles poet Christian Wiman who, nearly 20 years ago at age 39—newly married, his life before him—was diagnosed with a “rare form of lymphoma called Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia.” He imagined he had five years to live. As a child, his family’s anger and depression boiled over into violence in fits they referred to as “the sulls.” Wiman, so afflicted, used exercise to quell his feelings until he discovered reading as a way to change his life. He made poetry his obsession, “swallowing all of Blake, Dickinson, Dante, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes” and later John Milton, thinking that to write great poems, you first must consume them. Cep is nearly invisible in this piece; it’s so carefully researched and written, you feel as though you’re face to face with Wiman as he shares stories and what poetry has meant to him at various stages in his life. Poetry, he has written, is a salve “for psychological, spiritual, or emotional pain. For physical pain it is, like everything but drugs, useless.” Despite that, as Cep notes, when Wiman was in “the cancer chair” undergoing treatment and its excruciating side effects, he turned to verse. “In the cancer chair, Wiman would recite every poem he could remember, and, when he ran out, try to write one of his own,” she writes. Cep’s nuanced profile is a testament to dogged determination, coming to grips with faith—both in God and the power of poetry—and the feat of sheer will against despair. —KS
David Grimm | Science | December 7, 2023 | 3,694 words
A couple of years ago, my downstairs neighbors kept chickens. (Finger, Tender, and Nugget. I take no responsibility for the names.) These sassy ladies realized that I was a soft touch, and every day merrily hopped up the stairs to my deck to peer in through the patio door, awaiting kitchen scraps. I soon noticed that when I got up and opened my bedroom curtains, the chickens peered up from the yard. Curtains open, they would race up the stairs: the café was in business. These girls were so on the ball that I have not eaten a chicken since we became acquainted. It’s little wonder, then, that I pounced on this investigation into research on the complexity of thinking in farm animals, an area I have mused on since the food-savvy chickens but that is often ignored by scientists. David Grimm bravely faces the “cacophony of bleats, groans, and retching wails” and “sour miasma of pig excrement” to enter the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) and learn about the questions being asked there, such as do cows have friends? (Considering that scientists have potty-trained cows here, I think they probably do.) Grimm keeps the tone light—sliding in a few quips between the science—but still provides a comprehensive overview of the work. With a staggering 78 billion farm animals on Earth, it is time we gave them more thought. —CW
What editor’s pick was our readers’ favorite this week?
John Branch | The New York Times | December 9, 2023 | 10,969 words
A fifty-year-old story is dusted off after a camera belonging to a deceased climber emerges from a receding glacier on Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere’s highest mountain. What will the undeveloped photos tell us about an incident that may have been a climbing accident, but also may have been murder? John Branch conducted dozens of interviews and went on several reporting trips for this meticulous report. Combined with videos from Emily Rhyne, it is part adventure story, part murder mystery, and races along like a thriller. —CW